School kids may now be on summer vacation, but they were very much on the mind of Jun Hwang and his wife about this time last year when the couple was looking to venture into entrepreneurship and buy a convenience store in Stouffville, Ont.
They settled on B.J. Gift & Variety. Its location, along the town’s high-trafficked Main Street, included a sizable parking lot, making it easy for drivers to grab and go.
The other big selling point? Its walking distance to not one, not two, but three schools with Grades 7 and 8. It was an opportunity for growth he saw being missed by the owner who sold him the business: “He was 80 years old and wasn’t carrying any product for them.”
Review product mix
Hwang has since changed the product mix, devoting shelving specifically to kids’ sweet tooth, with a wide assortment of gummies and jellies, licorice, chewy treats, chocolates and more.
B.J. Gift & Variety is now attracting as many as 30 kids a day, who usually visit after school. “They love the candy—it sells fast—and they also buy a lot of bottled beverages,” says Hwang. “The other thing, the margin on these products is really good.”
For c-stores in school neighbourhoods, students are an important customer segment owing to their visit frequency and high-margin category preferences. And as Hwang points out, they are the future customers.
Welcome students with your product mix, and a portion of them will continue to make the store a shopping destination into adulthood.
“When I took over the store, I had some customers who are in their 30s and 40s come in and tell me that they’ve been coming here since they were six,” notes Hwang, who previously worked in the freight industry.
With business steadily building from pre-purchase levels, Hwang is looking to make additional changes to grow the customer base, including among students. (He notes, for instance, stationery hasn’t been selling, so won’t be stocking up that anymore. But he is considering novelty items like trading cards that might appeal to kids.)
Capture the lunch crowd
Meanwhile, Smokers Mart, located near Riverdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto, has become an important lunch spot for the high school’s student body, which numbers about 1,500. That has been especially true with the closing of a nearby Starbucks and Pizza Pizza during the pandemic.
“Students are very important—they make up about 15% of our sales,” says Smokers Mart owner Nira Murugan. “But the profit margin in the 15% is high relative to cigarette and lottery sales.”
In addition to offering variety and novelty in drinks and candy, Smokers Mart offers quick meals for lunch. Think Cup Noodles and Jamaican patties. “Patties are served hot,” he says. “Cup Noodles, we pour hot water for them and provide forks.”
Prioritize safety and security
Despite their promise, students can pose potential concerns and challenges for owners—namely, theft and mischief. In April, for instance, the entire student bodies of two Toronto schools were banned from a Dollarama after several “disruptive” incidents in the store.
Fortunately, c-store owners for this story say students have not been disruptive to other customers—nor has shoplifting been an issue, either.
“We have good kids, but sometimes you’ll get a group of seven friends come in at once, and you get a little nervous about it,” says Hwang. But he says he hasn’t detected any theft, and has a closed-circuit television surveillance camera with a large screen installed at the front of the store as a deterrent.
Smokers Mart also doesn’t have that problem with RCI students. “We have tons of cameras, and we keep track of our inventory to see if there are items that are missing—so far, it hasn’t been an issue,” says Murugan.
Rather, he finds “the biggest challenge is needing extra staff for the short lunch rush.”
Fortunately, being family run and having an additional hand just minutes away, “someone just drops by if there’s only one person working. Most days we have two people, one for cash and one for stocking up.”
For stores without staff flexibility, he says “you can apply a customer limit,” which in addition to keeping the lunch rush manageable can also serve as a shoplifting deterrent. “We did that for awhile—four kids at a time,” says Murugan. “Just takes a couple of weeks to get the students used to it. But because we had the staff for it, we didn’t keep up with it.”
Target students year-round
Eric Labranche, who owns Voisin c-stores in Shawinigan and Trois-Rivières in Quebec, says when it comes to product choices, students love variety and change. That includes during summer holiday when slushies are a big seller.
“The Creamsicle slush last summer was a big hit, and this summer we’re betting on a new Sour Mango flavoured slush,” says Labranche.
When Voisin welcomes students back to school in September, it’ll also be sure to have high-quality lunch and snack options. “They are willing to spend to have, for example, good sandwiches with top-of-the-range products,” says Labranche.
Hire your customers
If you cultivate and build relationships with them, in addition to being active customers, Labranche says students can also be a never-ending pipeline of staffing help.
Students represent between 40% to 50% of the total staff in his stores at any one time. “And I like to believe students who frequent my convenience stores end up rubbing shoulders with the student employees, see it can be fun, and want to work here, too,” he explains.
Labranche says it also creates goodwill with students to build community with schools. (See sidebar to see how the big chains are doing this.)
A Convenience Industry Council of Canada Frontline Heroes Award winner in 2021, Labranche helped ensure graduating students of his old school would get a safe ceremony by having Voisin staff volunteer at the door to ensure sanitary measures were being met. Voisin also donated floor stickers to help guests socially distance.
“More than just customers, I firmly believe as a c-store owner we can make a difference in the lives of young people,” says Labranche. “That is why I get involved—it is important for me that our business be tied to the community, and strive to do social good.”